While Reds fans were watching the Big Red Machine win the 1975 World Series, pitchers Andy Messersmith
of the Dodgers and Dave McNally
of the Orioles/Expos were finishing a season playing without signing a contract. The two players had allowed their 1974 contracts to govern their 1975 employment, but by refusing to sign their 1975 contracts. So, they hadn’t agreed in writing to be bound by the reserve clause for the 1976 season.
Taking advantage of this clever loophole in the reserve clause, Messersmith and McNally went to arbitration and claimed they weren’t bound in 1976 by their 1974 contract. In December 1975, in what was the most important labor arbitration decision in sports, the players won a landmark grievance (named the “Seitz Decision” after arbitrator Peter Seitz) that undercut the reserve clause. Seitz ruled that a player became a free agent after playing for one season after his contract had expired. The district court and Eighth Circuit upheld Seitz’s ruling.
And just like that, the reserve clause had a gaping hole any player could exploit. Peter Seitz immediately paid for his decision with his job. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn fired him, saying Seitz could no longer be seen as a neutral arbitrator.
Yet his decision stood. Owners were shaken and knew maintaining a form of the reserve clause was fundamental to their economic well being. Since they could no longer simply dictate it to the players, they turned to the only path Marvin Miller and the MLBPA had left them – collective bargaining.
The high-stakes negotiation was intense. The owners proposed players could become free agents after ten years with a club. Reds catcher Johnny Bench was reported to have said in response, “How can you say a player must play ten years to be a free agent? Only four percent of all major leaguers ever play that long!”
The owners locked the players out for the first couple weeks of spring training. After 17 days, commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered training camps open. The 1976 season started without at CBA. In July, MLB and the MLBPA reached an agreement reinstating a limited reserve clause. The negotiated deal stipulated players would earn free agency after accruing six years of major league service time.
The new limited reserve clause began as part of the 1976-1979 CBA and has remained in every subsequent agreement. Even today, players with fewer than six years of service time remain bound by Arthur Soden’s rule. Yet, free agency has forced baseball owners to share their ever-expanding revenues with the players whose talents, after all, are what excite fans and fill ball parks. The same is true in the other professional sports that followed baseball’s path.
Despite its long tenure in baseball CBAs, the possible modification of the six-year reserve clause is at the center of negotiations between the two sides right now.
We’ll look at that in an upcoming newsletter.